With most factories closed and a fall in road traffic amid the coronavirus epidemic, air quality has improved in many cities across the globe. This has not only cleaned the skies but also prevented many deaths, according to a recent study.
The number of deaths related to air pollution in Europe has decreased by 11,000, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. At the same time, 6,000 fewer children have developed asthma and 1,900 visits to emergency rooms were avoided.
While the pandemic continues to take a terrible toll, the authors of the report said the response has offered a glimpse of the cleaner, healthier environment that is possible if the world shifts away from polluting fossil fuel industries.
“The major public health benefits of reduced coal and oil burning, over just one month, are however a striking demonstration of the benefit to public health and quality of life if European decision-makers prioritize clean air, clean energy, and clean transport in their plans to recover from the crisis,” the authors wrote.
Compared with the same period last year, levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide have fallen by 40% while particulate matter levels are down 10%, which means that people can breathe cleaner air. These two forms of pollution, which weaken the heart and respiratory system, are together normally responsible for about 470,000 deaths in Europe each year.
The researchers used models that combine data for air quality, weather conditions, emissions, population, and disease prevalence. They found that Germany had the highest number of avoided deaths (2,083), followed by the UK (1,752), Italy (1,490), France (1,230), and Spain (1,083).
By associated disease, almost 40% of the fatality reductions were related to heart failure, 17% from lung ailments such as bronchitis and emphysema, and 13% each from strokes and cancer. The others were related to respiratory infections and diabetes.
Air pollution is the largest environmental health threat in Europe, with the average life expectancy in the European Union shortened by an estimated eight months due to exposure to pollution.
The team's model estimated a range of prevented deaths between 20,000 to 7,000. Worldwide, the number of avoided pollution deaths will be much higher because this study focuses on only one continent and one month.
The lead author of the analysis, Lauri Myllyvirta, told The Guardian that the fall in air pollution had reduced pressure on health services at an important time and has shown how much of a difference air quality improvement can make. But he was wary of framing this as a benefit.
“I am very conflicted about all of this. People are dying. The measures we have been forced to take are causing a lot of economic and other distress, but this is an unprecedented experiment in reducing fossil fuel consumption so of course people working on air pollution are paying attention,” he said.
Air pollution is the most urgent environmental health risk in the world. More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in costs for health services.